UW Gardens open gates to new audiences

Michael Muckian, Contributing writer

The University of Wisconsin-Madison’s best-kept secret hides in plain sight just west of the heart of the school’s massive campus. But if Benjamin Futa has his way, it won’t stay secret for very much longer.

Amid flat expanses of athletic playing fields and tucked among the boxy university classroom buildings sits a charming Queen Anne-style residence wreathed in historic gardens that bloom to life every spring. Allen Centennial Gardens is a public botanical garden and outdoor classroom for the UW Horticulture Department and Futa, at age 25, is the gardens’ newest and, historically, youngest garden director.

His goal is to bring more recognition to the garden, and make the 365-day-a-year enterprise even more accessible and inviting to audiences both on and off campus.

“At 2.5 acres, this is a human-scale garden with a historic residence on the property,” says Futa, who assumed his new position on May 4. “The size and scale help people feel that this is something they can do at home.”

The 27 individually themed gardens, located at 620 Babcock Drive on the UW campus, feature a mix of garden styles, plant materials and design innovations. Anchoring the property is the former home of the first four deans of the UW College of Agricultural and Life Sciences. The house currently is being renovated to become a more integral part of the gardens’ educational programming, Futa says.

The gardens, originally located outside the UW Plant Sciences building, were moved to their current location in 1989 when Plant Science underwent an expansion. A major gift from Ethel Allen, the widow of UW bacteriologist Oscar Allen, helped fund the project. The gardens continue to be independently funded through donations and are not part of the UW System budget.

“I think everybody craves some level of connection to the natural world,” says Futa, a South Bend, Indiana, native who moved here with his fiance Paul Sexton earlier this year. “A garden is a special place that involves human interaction with nature, and it’s nature’s serenity that draws them in.”

Prior to coming to Madison, Futa served as head of horticulture and grounds at the Fernwood Botanical Gardens in Niles, Michigan, as well as working at the Lurie Garden in Chicago’s Millennium Park. A horticulturist at heart, Futa also headed up Fernwood’s member and donor relations, and he is hoping to find new ways to stimulate greater public interest in what Allen Centennial Gardens has to offer.

“I know that we spend $20,000 on plant materials each year, but we don’t have a plant database so I can’t tell you exactly how many types of plants we currently have,” Futa says. “We’re a living museum and museums tell their stories through their collections.”

Creating that database is something Futa hopes to get underway soon. More important, however, is broadening the gardens’ appeal, particularly among the student population that passes by every day of the school year.

“Our gates are open, but not necessarily the easiest place to find,” Futa says. “I want to open the gates in more ways than one. I want to show everyone that gardens can and should be part of their lives.”

Part of that, he explains, is programming. Futa would like to see more activities with more groups that are interactive with the garden environment. “Science cafes” that blend social or sustenance activities with outdoor educational talks might be one way, and yoga classes in the garden could be another, he adds.

“Gardening is a performance art that can bridge the gap for botanists, pharmacologists and other groups,” Futa explains. “We want to draw on a number of new audiences and get more people inside the gates.”

Much of the attraction, of course, is the plantings themselves. Each spring, more than 2,000 tulips blossom, one of the gardens’ biggest draws, Futa says. Other aspects of the garden give variety, color and appeal beyond what many such gardens can provide.

“The most interesting part to me is our extensive rock garden, which must comprise 10 to 15 percent of the property,” Futa says. “It’s done to a very high level and has been recognized by the North American Rock Garden Society. It’s really miraculous.”

The most arresting single plant in the garden is a very old larch tree. Several years ago an ice storm did significant damage to the tree, and its two remaining arms wrap themselves around a newly established Japanese garden, creating a striking horticultural statement.

“You can tell that the tree has a story to tell and that’s why people are drawn to it,” Futa says. “The sign by the tree says that we have no idea how old the tree is, but we do know that it’s very old.”

Like the gardens, Madison has great appeal for Futa, who plans to marry Sexton next summer. The wedding will take place among family and friends back in South Bend, but the pair will return to Madison afterward for what Futa hopes will be many more seasons of the Allen Centennial Garden’s blooming enterprise.

“I have just fallen in love with Madison,” Futa says.